What’s my scene – developing a career path

At a time when my own career has reached a happy place, I find myself surrounded by others at very different stages of their working lives. My two teenage sons have just started casual jobs and are grappling with juggling school commitments and work. They also need to be thinking about life beyond school and what direction to take with their careers. At the same time, friends around me are finding themselves in somewhat of a midlife crisis, embarking on major career adjustments.

By Katrina Gillespie, Manager: Career Services, UniSA

Both of these scenarios highlight somewhat of a dichotomy in the career advice currently on offer. On the one hand there is the suggestion to hone your thoughts about a future career into one clear objective that you then systematically work towards. High school students in particular are urged to use self-awareness and self-help development tools to identify their core values, strengths, interests and skills to then match with specific career goals that can shape into future study decisions.

On the other hand we’re increasingly reminded that the millennial generation will experience a ‘portfolio career’, potentially having as many as 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime!

So what’s the best approach to prepare for a future of work that is both targeted and flexible? The answer, as I often find is, ‘It depends’. Firstly it depends on your current life stage. It makes perfect sense to try to guide the thinking of young people with no clear idea of what they want to focus on in their working life, into a coherent strategy to move them successfully beyond high school. For many, this will result in a clearly identifiable career goal – I want to be a teacher/nurse/pilot/carer/gardener. And a clear pathway to those careers exists and can be followed.

For others, the result may still be only a vague notion of what career to pursue. You may know, for example, that you can’t stand the sight of blood but quite like the idea of working in an office, therefore you may pursue generalist training or education in the business field. This less identifiable pathway is more open to flexibility and fluidity, and will require a more ‘relaxed’ approach to career development.

For mature, experienced workers there may indeed come a time when a radical change is desired. Again self-reflection and self-awareness is critical to find out ‘where your heart is’. But it’s also important at this stage to take a broad approach in identifying possible opportunities and avenues that you may not have originally thought of. Networks can be invaluable too, so reaching out and connecting through your network to uncover opportunities is vital.

Underpinning it all are the skills that employers consistently look for in their workers – at all ages and stages of career. Sometimes referred to as ‘soft’ skills, these attributes are receiving heightened levels of attention with different titles to match the increased recognition of their importance – human skills, essential skills, communication skills, cognitive skills, enterprise skills. Typically they include things like teamwork capability, conflict resolution skills, language skills, resilience, the ability to influence others and so on. Let’s not minimise the importance of these skills by using the term ‘soft’! They are often the attributes that set apart great workers from the average, dynamic managers from the ordinary, and when these skills are lacking they’re often the reason for poor performance.

Perhaps then the best approach is one where the focus is always on developing soft skills, regardless of whether the end career goal is clear or easily defined. Often this will be through experiences – work experience, volunteering, interacting with others through clubs and social activities, and being involved in your community. That way you will be well equipped to be flexible in your approach, and open to new opportunities as they arise, while also being aware of your own personal situation.

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